Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Language Instinct

See, this is why I love general-readership nonfiction:

I bought a copy of Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct towards the end of my linguistics-course audit so that I could recover or at least re-cover some of the big-picture material from the course. Now, without getting into the nitty-gritty of things, liguistics (or at least a major stream in linguistics) is heavily oriented around something called the "X-bar theory" of syntax, which basically holds that all kinds of phrases (noun, verb, etc., as well as full sentences) consist of the same fundamental structure. This was rather confusing as it was presented in the course, largely because the professor was opposed on principle to spoon-feeding her class with textbook material. And even after getting the basic idea down, I never felt completely comfortable with the system.

Pinker explains what the basics of X-bar syntax are, doesn't cut any significant corners that weren't cut in class, and moreover explains why X-bar is really interesting, in the course of about pages 100 to 130 in his book. I read this part over a roast beef sandwich in a bookstore/cafe last night. Finally, the light bulb goes off: the right kind of authorial body English will really light up your mental pinball machine.

Lucidity really shouldn't be something to be afraid of. It's just wildly more efficient to learn entry-point concepts in a field this way.

The first two weeks' worth of our reading were chapters out of a book by linguist Ray Jackendoff, whose point had to do with arguing that a similar X-bar system underlies semantic concepts (semantic info being "meaning" info). What I remember of this seems fascinating in retrospect, and I'm going to try to re-read some of it. But nothing else in the course built on it, and it made no sense to read it at the time since (1) Jackendoff's writing, not being for entry-point readers, assumed you already knew all about X-bar syntax and (2) one of the first main unintutive ideas we had to learn was about the difference between syntax and semantics.

The Pinker book's a beautiful read, lively and fast-paced. I'll try to finish it by Christmas so someone can borrow it for the new year.


Anonymous danblim said...

You may be interested in Jackendoff's work with Fred Lerdahl on music theory- their seminal thing is called A Generative Theory of Tonal Analysis. I haven't read it, but it's referenced a lot.

12/16/2006 4:45 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home